Authors: Em Petrova
Tags: #Steampunk/Medieval Fantasy
The braids secured in place, Isolde sighed. “Corliss, that’s enough. I wish to be alone.”
The warm brown eyes of her maid studied her. “Shall I bring ye tea?”
“Perhaps later,” she answered, touching her forearm gently. “I’ll call ye if I have need of ye.”
Another curtsy, and Isolde found herself alone at last. Her chamber was filled with light at this time of day. It filtered through the tall, narrow window and fell in a sheet across the floor. Isolde’s steps were noiseless as she crossed to the window.
She was offered a view of the paddock and the men-at-arms training there. The horses’ hooves kicked up divots of mud. The low laughter of the men reached her. The breeze picked up, and at the edge of the wood, on a lone tree, a sheet of parchment flapped.
A wanted poster.
Thoughts returning to Sadler and her midnight rendezvous, Isolde faced the mirror again. He saw her mother’s face when he looked at her. She’d been small when her father had ordered her mother’s execution—almost too small to recall the look of her. Now as her gaze traveled over the flush of her high cheekbones, the pink swell of her breasts, and the too-bright eyes, she remembered.
Her mother had worn this look after she’d disappeared for hours on her day trips. While the king thought his restless wife wandering the countryside on horseback, she’d actually been in the bed of another man—Corbet. Father to Sadler.
If Isolde’s mother had had half the experience with Corbet that Isolde had had with his son, she could see why her mother had risked her life for the love of the man. As she stared at the parchment battered by the wind, she wondered if she wasn’t risking the same.
Isolde sank to the edge of her grand bed and kicked off her slippers. She had no intention of returning to the great hall, yet nightfall was hours away. Midnight seemed like another realm, a far-off kingdom. Where was Sadler now? Would he lurk about the grounds until the moment when he could slip into the rose garden unseen, or wait outside the castle walls?
Fear for him made her knees bounce. She’d never forgive herself if he was caught on her account.
She sighed heavily and flopped against her down pillows, her head sinking into the comforting depths. Perhaps she hadn’t completely lied when she’d told Corliss she was tired from outrunning the boar. And if she intended to stay up half the night with Sadler, then she’d better steal some rest while she could.
Her gown laced down the back, and she knew Corliss knotted her into it, so undressing was out of the question. Yet Isolde felt suffocated in the confines of the green silk. She smoothed the skirts over her legs with a rustling sound and thought of Sadler’s hands lifting her hem, feeling her thighs, and burying his fingers in her wetness.
A fresh trickle of fluid bathed her nether lips, and as a result, her nipples pinched into tight knots.
In a flurry, she whipped her skirts upward, and doing something she’d never dared, she touched the wetness herself. The first stroke sent a bolt of need to her core as she explored the uncharted realm of her body.
Her pale pubic curls were damp. How would Sadler’s face appear if he looked upon her most secret spot? The memory of his heavily lidded eyes as he brought his fingers beneath his nose maddened her.
As she scraped her thumbnail gently up the seam of her sex, white heat shot through her. She rubbed the sensitive spot as Sadler had done, wishing for his big fingers to fill her, knowing she really wanted the long shaft she’d seen that morn.
Isolde lifted away her trembling thumb and studied the liquid moistening her fingers. Her wantonness should have shocked her, but instead she only felt wildly excited. Meeting Sadler in the garden would be the most titillating moment she’d ever have. After all, a princess was destined to marry for connections, wealth, and power. And these traits belonged to men like the Earl of Millvale, wealthy inventors with estates in two countries. Men old enough to be her father. Men with greasy hands and too-hot eyes.
Not a man with no worldly possessions other than a battle-ax and a bounty on his head.
Not a man who looked delicious in a pair of leather breeches.
* * *
The wind thrust against Isolde’s face, driving her hair back like a sail. She wrapped her cloak more tightly about herself and trudged deeper into the rose garden where the tall oak trees could offer shelter. The sky roiled with clouds. They scudded past the moon at high speed, making the light in the garden wink on and off.
Sneaking past her sleeping maid and out the chamber at midnight was easier than she’d ever imagined. If she’d known that at sixteen, when she’d been determined to prove her independence, she probably would have met more trouble than she could have handled. As it was, she had a long history of catastrophes. The mishap with the boar was a cornerstone in the foundation of her self-induced misfortunes.
The time she’d dangled her little brother Colin from a rope harness out of the tower window had earned her six weeks in her chamber, with only the company of her maid Corliss. Purposely rigging the saddle improperly on the Earl of Millvale’s horse, causing him to fall face-first into the thick mud, had seen her bent over the king’s knee in his private chamber and in receipt of a spanking.
Isolde leaned against the rough bark of a great oak tree, again pondering how her father had discovered her role in that catastrophe.
She strained her ears, trying to hear the chafe of boots against the grass that meant Sadler had come. It was impossible to deny her excitement at the thought. A fire had kindled low in her belly, heating her against the gusting wind and taste of rain on the air.
The leaves rustled overhead. One shook loose and blew into Isolde’s face, sticking itself to her cheek. She peeled it away, thinking of Sadler’s hands, so broad and strong, the knuckles spattered with red-gold hair, the fingers wonderfully rough.
She shivered and huddled deeper into the cocoon of her cloak. Her hair lashed into her eyes, and she pressed it back, thinking she perhaps should have fastened it on her crown.
Which reminded her—that weaselly Earl of Millvale had some gall mentioning her state of dishevelment. He never would have dared to make such an intimate remark in the presence of the king. She shuddered at the memory of his kiss on her knuckles.
Her heart throbbed into her throat at the low sound of footsteps. She whipped her head about and took several steps into the blackness, straining to see.
“Sadler?” she whispered.
The wind rushed over her, making her cloak tremble. For long minutes she stared at the space where she thought she’d heard movement, but long minutes passed in silence. Eventually she sank to the ground with her back against the tree trunk and her cloak gathered beneath her to keep out the chill.
Hours later, stiff and exhausted, Isolde came to terms with the fact that Sadler wasn’t coming. As she sneaked into the castle through the kitchen door, tears burned her eyes. By the time she reached the frigid staircase leading to her chamber in the tower, the tears had turned to angry sparks. And when she slammed the door and woke Corliss, she snapped at her beloved maid.
She tore off her cloak, wadded it into a ball, and tossed it into the corner. She stomped to the window and stared out at the lashing trees and inky night. Sadler had stood her up. He’d gotten what he’d wanted—his hand beneath her skirts. He probably sat in a cozy alehouse in the village, warm and dry, as he told the other drunks about his conquest.
Never again would Isolde put herself into such a predicament. Her heart would remain safely chained inside her chest, and no man—beautiful nude god or not—would be able to free it.
As Sadler tore himself from Princess Isolde and plunged into the maze of the castle, a foreign thread of emotion wove its way into his heart. With each stride leading away from her, the string stretched tight, a washing line of kisses, smoldering looks, and tender touches.
His boots, no matter how softly he trod, rang on the stone floors. He turned every corner prepared to fight for his life. He carried only a small blade tucked into his belt, but his fingertips twitched to feel the weight of a sword.
The massive castle formed a clover shape, and he struggled to create a mental map. The west corner housed the kitchens, the north, the king’s chamber. The great hall took up most of the east corner, and the center boasted several small rooms used by guests, the king’s study, and a very pretty sewing room, where Sadler could only too easily picture Isolde, sitting with blonde head bowed over a tapestry.
Her chamber had to be in the south tower.
But he would never find out, now would he?
“Hallo,” called a lad walking toward Sadler with an armload of fresh linens. “Haven’t seen ye around.”
“The kitchen ladies are yelling that they’ve no cloths to do their daily scrubbing. Ye’d best hurry,” Sadler said as he passed the youth. He wished he had a hat, but managed to keep his eyes averted.
He hid his grin as he heard the lad’s feet hammer the floor, dashing for the kitchen. The castle was a city unto itself, each person operating individually to create a comfortable home for the royal family.
The thread in his breast threatened to snap. He passed a hand over his face and caught Isolde’s scent on his fingers. Sweet honey, she’d been for him.
He arrived at a fork in the passage. Left could mean instant death. Right, freedom. Or the opposite. Or neither.
Behind him, the sound of footsteps climbed through the cavern of his mind, giant’s feet threatening to crush him. A ticklish feeling crept up the back of Sadler’s neck, tightening his scalp. He chose the passage to the left and lengthened his strides, strolling casually but desperate to break into a run or turn a corner. The stone walk was endless and lit every six feet by a torch of light high on the wall.
A single cry of “assassin” could bring the whole castle down upon him. Blood drummed in his ears.
Where was Adlard the almighty king right now? Meting out punishments? Stealing fathers from sons who needed them?
Sadler had been too young to truly care for himself when his father was executed. He’d stood with the crowd in the castle yard and watched as the black hood was placed over his father’s face, his body lowered over a wooden bench, and his head dangled over a basket. When the axman raised the blade, Sadler’s eyes had pinched shut. But the echo of his father’s beloved head hitting the basket would live in his memory for eternity. Sadler’d been twelve years old.
After that, Sadler had run, sprinting through the countryside until his chest was on fire and his tears were a faint trickle from the corners of his eyes. For two days he’d been too sick with grief to eat, but on the third day, hunger became his enemy. On the fourth day, after pilfering various kitchen gardens and snaring a rabbit, Sadler’s anger hit. By the fifth day, he had devised a plan to wipe out the king.
He’d come close to succeeding.
For the past fifteen years, he’d drifted from kingdom to kingdom, seeking rest in the high grasses or stacks of hay, working when he could, and sometimes stealing—no noble work fit for a princess’s lover.
Voices drifted to him, and he guessed a grouping of four men followed him. The steps grew louder and nearer, until he knew for certain the group was about to overtake him. His muscles flexed as he prepared to flee. Ahead he spotted the glow of daylight and knew the end of the corridor spilled into the castle yard. With any luck, it wouldn’t be the training grounds for the men-at-arms.
“Ho, ye there.”
The cry speared him like a hot poker, and he bolted as screams ricocheted off the stone walls, piercing his skull.
“Stop him! Get him!”
Sadler tore into the yard, blinking against the glare of the sun, dodging carts of vegetables and a flock of forlorn sheep who bleated at him as he infiltrated their ranks. He hurdled the fluffy bodies, three in a row, and when the fence loomed into sight, he jumped it too.
Meeting Isolde in the garden at midnight would be a tricky undertaking while trying to keep his head connected to his shoulders. He thought of her wandering about the rosebushes, how her skin would look in the blue light of the moon, her face crestfallen.
“Men to the castle yard! Men to arms!”
Legs devouring the ground between castle and forest, he searched for escape. He’d left his battle-ax hidden in the oil-coated hay-fuel used for android horses, as he could scarcely wander the castle armed so. If he couldn’t find an ax, sword, or horse soon, he may as well crawl into a grave and cover himself up.
The screams of the soldiers bore down on him, and the thunder of their feet jarred through the soles of his boots and into his calves. How would Isolde feel to walk past his head on a spike every day?
The spiral of smoke from a cottage beckoned him, and before he could consider his actions, he dashed into the yard. A rough woman with frizzled hair and a babe in her arm gasped at his intrusion. Her shoulders were bowed beneath the weight of a full water pail, and as Sadler rushed by, he grabbed the pail and scurried into the house with it.
He blinked into the darkness and picked out the hearth across the small earthen floor. He put the bucket onto the plank table. Above the mantel a long, gleaming silver sword hung. He ripped it from the wall and charged out the door, boots scraping the dry dirt floor.
The yard undulated with soldiers. Their collective battle cry deafened him.
“Get ye into the cot, woman, and protect yer babe!” Sadler yelled and gave her a shove toward the door.
Bodies flew at him, blue uniforms swarmed him, enveloping him in a hard, hot sea of men, and then he was fighting. Swinging the blade in great slashing arcs, striking steel and flesh and bone.
. Sword scraped sword.
His face pulled into a grimace of rage, and his cock grew stiff inside the tight leather breeches. Battle hardness, he’d told Isolde. If only she’d be near to relieve him of it later.
If he lived to see later.
Spinning and dancing out of the path of swords, Sadler fought with his back to the cottage. The hilt of a sword bashed his skull. The light winked out and returned at once. Blood dripped into his eyes. Swiping it with a forearm, he fought on, drawing more blood than he bled, seeing a little finger tumble to the earth and the body it belonged to drop his sword and scream.